It’s a question I have thought about for a long time and a lot lately.
I haven’t suffered.
I first realized it objectively.
I read about suffering in the biographies of great founders and celebrities. The true greats come from poverty or have won battles against personal demons.
That’s not me.
How does my life experience compare to these personal struggles that I read about?
I was born healthy and raised in a strong family by supportive parents. I was a good student and went to a good college. I haven’t put undo pressure on myself. I haven’t experienced anxiety or depression. I have no personal demons. I took a good job out of school in a good economy. I’ve switched jobs and climbed the corporate ladder without stress. I started businesses on my own terms. My personal savings have grown while skating through recessions and down markets. My parents are still living. I haven’t lost anyone who is close to me. I’m lucky.
Next, it was reinforced emotionally.
Over the years, three family members have pointed out that I lead a charmed life. These reminders are particularly memorable to me.
In the family conversations I’ve had, my good fortune was not admired. The frame was negative. The messages I took to heart centered on how I “just don’t get” struggle and how I “couldn’t possibly understand” its meaning.
So I’m conflicted. Is my lack of suffering good? Am I indeed lucky? Or…
Is it a bad thing to not have struggled?
That too could be true:
- Character finds its roots in suffering according to The Road to Character by David Brooks. With no suffering, do I also lose character? I want character.
- Without suffering through the bad, do I not value the good in life? I want to value life and lead one that is examined and meaningful.
- And back to greatness: Success is often rooted in suffering. Will I never be great? I don’t need to be huge or popular, but I want to be great at what I do!
My immediate reaction is that suffering is a part of life that I’ve been lucky to skip past (so far).
But maybe it wasn’t luck at all. Consider:
- My socioeconomic condition: I am a tall, white, well-educated, male living in the 21st century United States. It can’t get any better. I am privileged.
- My inherited personality: I dislike conflict and stress, and aim to side-step problems. I’m risk-averse and calculated in what I pursue. I’ve designed myself a “safe” life.
But gliding safely through life isn’t right either. My life needs meaning.
Could I be more conscious in seeking out difficult things, environments, and experiences? Do I pursue something that stretches my comfort zone but risks sadness and suffering?
I don’t know.
Is there a middle ground?
I want to challenge myself. Yet I don’t want to suffer for the sake of it. That seems pointless.
What if I risk a meaningful but painful experience and then manage the suffering?
Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, reminds us in “What it Means to Suffer, and Why it’s Important” that pain and suffering are related, yet different experiences.
The familiar adage says, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
Suffering is the result of a chain reaction: stimulus -> thought -> reaction.
We don’t have control over the stimulus that triggers pain. But we can influence our thoughts about the pain and our reaction to it. In doing so, we can reduce suffering.
To live a well-examined and purpose-filled life, I need to go big and risk some pain. And when the inevitable pain comes, I should think deeply and practice how I react.
Maybe this is the middle ground that I seek.
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